Complaints center on FOI requests in Bauxite
Freedom of Information Act responses are slow to be returned in Bauxite, according to Alderman Mona Struble.
The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act of 1967 allows citizens to obtain government records to keep the workings of the government transparent to the citizens. Any FOI requests must be returned within three working days and a person who "negligently violates" the FOIA is guilty of a Class C misdemeanor according to the official wording of the law.
However, many FOI requests sent to Bauxite Mayor Johnny McMahan and other Bauxite employees go unreturned or are sent well after the three-day deadline, according to Struble and other Bauxite officials.
An FOI request sent by Struble via email to City Attorney Pam Perry, dated July 29, has just recently been completed, according to Struble.
The original request from Struble states: "Under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act 93 of 1967, please provide me the following information. A copy of or Internet access to all e-mails to and from and between you and Mayor Johnny McMahan."
Perry responded on July 29 acknowledging receipt of the FOI. She stated: "I will do my best to provide you with the documents that you have requested within the applicable time period allowed by law. However, the scope of your request is very broad as it encompasses almost two years of email materials from an email which is in active use in my law practice and will have to be searched."
The message continues by saying that the records will be made available for pickup at Perry's office in Little Rock during business hours once completed. Additionally, Perry stated, "I will charge the $.05 per copy that the city of Bauxite charges."
State law permits the custodian of records to charge a fee for copying records, but the charges may not exceed actual reproduction costs and the custodian must provide an itemized breakdown of charges, according to information provided by the Arkansas Press Association.
In a message dated Aug. 11, Perry stated: "I have completed 2012 and 2013 of your request."
In a message dated Aug. 12, she noted that the documents are available for Struble to pick up at her office in Little Rock. A bill sent to Struble states that 799 copies were made at $.05 cents per copy for a total of $39.95.
This does not include copies of any correspondence between Perry and McMahan for the year 2014, said Perry. She stated, "The request is voluminous and I have not completed 2014."
Struble said she has been unable to pick up the documents, but noted that the FOI request was late and should have been returned on Aug. 1.
When asked about the FOI request, Perry stated, "I would like to clarify that it is not part of my job responsibilities for the city of Bauxite to complete FOIA requests and this is not a city of Bauxite FOIA request. Ms. Struble's request came to me directly and personally by name under the FOIA as an attorney. I am the custodian of my own law office records."
Perry continued by saying, "No one at City Hall has anything to do with this request and I am processing it myself as I am a solo practitioner and do not keep any office staff. I have kept Ms. Struble informed via email as to my progress in completing her request and have responses indicating her satisfaction with my good faith attempt to complete the request."
Struble said this is not the only instance of an FOI being returned late or not returned at all in Bauxite.
An FOI request from Struble to McMahan dated July 28 states: "In reference to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act 93 of 1967, I am requesting the following documents. 1) a copy of all city of Bauxite checking account statements that include the month ending June 30, 2014, or the latest available statements. I know of at least 13."
"2) Spread sheet for activity from payroll accounts for 2013 and 2014."
"3) Copy of IRS form 1099 and/or W2 that were submitted to the IRS for Marietta Ashley, Doyle David Ashley, his son, and Mark Greer for 2012, 2013 and 2014. Please include amendments.
"4) Copy of the application form submitted by Mark Greer to the city of Bauxite."
Struble noted in the same FOI request: "Mayor, you have stated that these were excessive and frivolous FOI requests submitted that you did not have the time and resources to respond. According to the FOI act, that is not an acceptable response."
To date, this FOI request has not been answered, according to Struble.
Another request from Struble to McMahan dated June 24 has also gone unanswered, Struble says.
The message stated: "I will ask again for a copy of all city employees, their salaries, job duties and hours worked, starting at the beginning of 2013. An email will be fine. I want all full-time and part-time and even one-time jobs and financial statements."
Bauxite resident Debbi Purifoy contends that numerous FOI requests have gone unreturned including requests she submitted dating back to 2011. Any documents that are not immediately available to residents must be made available within three days of a formal FOI request being submitted, according to the law.
Former Bauxite employee Gary Beck also stated that he had an outstanding FOI request that had not been answered to date, far beyond the three-day requirement.
Candace Carpenter was appointed to the position of recorder/treasurer on Aug. 7 by the city council. One of the duties of the recorder/treasurer, according to McMahan, is to respond to formal FOI requests on behalf of the city.
McMahan said, "The FOIA stipulates that the 'custodian of records' handles FOI requests, which in our case would be the recorder/clerk/treasurer, which we have not had one since Sheryl Johnson resigned on Nov. 1, 2013. In good faith, we have been doing the best we can with Christy Mitchell doing most/all of the requests, etc. This will be the job of Candace Carpenter as she was appointed to this position last Thursday.
"I met with Candace on Monday, Aug. 11, 2014," McMahan said, "and we discussed all of her duties that she would responsible for and FOI requests were mentioned and she understood she would be responsible. Candace called me yesterday (Wednesday) and said she had been sworn in at the Saline County Clerk's Office and was/is ready to start doing her job."
McMahan concluded by saying, "I believe from this time forward the FOI requests will be handled exclusively by Ms. Carpenter and I presume she will do her best to comply during the time frame."
Struble said that she requested two things of the city attorney — to charge McMahan with nonfeasance and to comply with FOI requests.
Struble said, "I have said and known for some time ... things aren't right. But until the majority comes around ... we will have to wait for solid proof."
McMahan pointed out that "unfortunately, the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act can be abused and is a legal way to harass elected officials, especially in a small town like Bauxite, with mostly part-time employees. Bauxite has had 'one' full-time employee who has been doing it all the last two years."
He added that the FOI requests, "mostly by one citizen, have been relentless."
The mayor further noted that Bauxite has had four different clerk/recorder/treasurers during this period, adding that state law says this person is to be the "custodian of records" and is charged with the responsibility of fulfilling FOI requests.
However, the individuals in this job "haven't stuck around long enough to learn even where the documents are located," he said.
"We have had dozens of FOI requests and some cities our size have maybe one a year," he added. "We had 11 in January of this year from one person."
He added that there is "one citizen that has perfected the FOI request" and he believes "she has done it not for legitimate purposes, but to take time away from conducting real business of Bauxite."
"It is easy for someone to stand on the sidelines and demand information that a city employee has to stop work and try to find the documents when they are doing city business. And none of these documents, in my opinion, are an emergency or have any social redeeming value to the recipient, except to take our time and hinder our workforce."
He pointed out that the city now has a "custodian of records."
"Hopefully, she can fulfill these requests on a timely basis," he added.
McMahan concluded by saying, "The Town of Bauxite has made a good-faith effort to provide documents on a timely basis without an official custodian of records to do the work."